The ace-ed.org team recently sat down with Corona-Norco Unified School District (California) Assistant Superintendent of IT Ben Odipo to learn how his school district’s IT and Curriculum teams are collaborating to improve equity and access across the school system. Here is a transcript of that conversation:
It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ben. Can you please tell us a little bit about the Corona-Norco Unified School District? Where is it located, who do you serve, what’s special about the community you live in? Can you also tell readers about your own background and your role at the district?
Corona-Norco Unified School District (CNUSD) is located approximately 60 miles east of Los Angeles and is the largest school district in Riverside County and the ninth largest in the state of California. As a large urban school district, we serve approximately 50,000 students, preschool through Adult Transition across 51 schools: Our schools include 30 TK-6 elementary schools, three K-8 Academies, two middle schools (6-8), six Intermediate schools, five comprehensive high schools, two alternative high schools, a middle college high school, a school for students with exceptional needs, a STEM Academy and a TK-12 Virtual School of Innovation. CNUSD provides a wide variety of educational programs such as: Gifted and Talented Education, K-12 Dual Language Immersion, Expanded Learning/After School Education and Safety Program (ASES), AVID K-12, Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), IB MYP (Middle Years Program), STEM, multiple CTE Pathways, and dual/concurrent enrollment with Norco College. We are fortunate to serve a diverse student population in our district – 54% Hispanic, 23% White, 11% Asian, 6% African American, and 3% Filipino. Over 50 languages are spoken within our schools. In Corona-Norco 47% of students are eligible for free and reduced meals, 47.2% are unduplicated and 14.8% are classified as English Learners.
It is over 28 years ago today that I started on an accidental journey in I.T. This rewarding experience has given me opportunities to work in manufacturing, hospitality, consulting services, and education. I am originally from Kenya and developed much of my foundational I.T. experience in Kenya. I am a firm believer in continuous improvement as we continue to evolve and adapt and grow. I currently serve as the proud Assistant Superintendent of Information technology for CNUSD and have been a part of the district since 2008. In my role, I broadly support the strategic plan in the goal areas of Academic Excellence, Student Well-Being, Equity and Effective Governance. I oversee technical and client support; applications and data development; networking and infrastructure; and project management. I continuously lean on the efforts to integrate the three tenets of People (Who), Technology (What) and Processes (How). For example, it is my role to ensure that students receive a device that works in a timely way in order to gain access to instruction and build systems of support for our students to ensure equity of access to infrastructure such as WiFi.
Like many districts, your school system has a focus on improving student access and equity. Can you tell me about your district’s strategic plan to accomplish this?
In 2021, our Superintendent and School Board published the guideline for the district’s future as outlined in our 2021-2026 District Strategic Plan. This plan ensures that we can build on our successes, learn from our challenges, and continue to create learning environments where each student can thrive. With input from our students, families, business partners and staff, the district set the following strategic goals –
- Academic Excellence
- Student Well-Being
- Equity; and
- Effective Governance.
The plan provides us all a clear guide on how to reach our goals and ultimately measure impact on student achievement.
Therefore, from an I.T. perspective, our collective efforts in the third goal are to reduce inequitable outcomes for students and staff by incorporating equity practices across all District operations. Some direct objectives include, employee training, improving systems/processes, diverse employee representation, school curriculum alignment and closing the digital divide.
How specifically has the IT Department supported these efforts?
Fundamentally the delivery of Information Technology services is rooted in equity. We function like the central nervous system (CNS). Much like the CNS we combine information from the entire organization and facilitate activity across the various units. This coordination and facilitation must be done equitably. It is the idea that each stakeholder has different circumstances, yet we allocate from a collective pool of resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome. I continue to build on a strong foundation of work done before my time. It is much like a relay race, and I’m committed to running my leg with dedication. An important beginning step is to assemble a dynamic team and I am so grateful for the IT professionals on my team. It also takes involved leadership to support that incredible team and my Superintendent, Superintendent’s Cabinet and School Board of Education have been instrumental in our success.
Historically, due to funding constraints, our district has struggled with inadequate IT infrastructure across 53 schools. This created inequitable outcomes for students and staff. As happens in so many districts, schools with additional funding used those monies to purchase technology and provide innovative environments for their students while those without would struggle. We therefore embarked on updating our entire district’s infrastructure after successfully passing a General Obligation Bond back in 2014. The goal was to ensure equal access to reliable network infrastructure (firewalls, servers, switches, WiFi, cabling, VOIP, bandwidth, security) and classroom technology (projectors, sound, Extron controls) by developing a new district wide baseline.
It is paramount to create teaching environments that require minimal daily teacher setup. The teachers need to focus on their students and less on being technology experts. It took a tremendous amount of patience for all our stakeholders to buy into this strategic approach because organizations tend to put the horse before the cart. For example, we hear of many districts that purchased laptops for classroom learning with inadequate foundational infrastructure to support it. Therefore, the leadership of our School Board and Superintendent’s cabinet was critical in managing these expectations over time. While it is encouraging to have an experimental approach to innovation, these efforts may not be sustainable over time without the fundamental building blocks of a sound infrastructure. The phrase we coined was “Building the highway before purchasing the cars”.
The other essential ingredient to reducing inequitable outcomes was to create a central place where teachers, students and staff could find all the necessary resources to meet their individual goals. As a result, we embarked on developing an internal district portal that would serve as a unified personalized point of access to relevant information, processes, and people. Called myCNUSD, this portal permits a high degree of administrative ease, integration, personalization, and content management. This development opportunity gave rise to a centralized district messaging and branding. The Communications department blossomed from this point onward and helped connect all our stakeholders with the district offerings.
For example, the creation of this portal facilitated the provisioning of Discovery Education (DE) licensing across the district. DE was our first SSO (Single Sign-On) integration on the myCNUSD portal. This brought about the ease of access, awareness of application offerings for teachers and subsequently driving up the usage. DE was an important partner to CNUSD when the district was named as one of the four finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2012. The Broad Prize for Urban Education is the largest education prize in the country, honoring school districts that demonstrate the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement, while reducing achievement gaps among the poor and minority. With SSO, CNUSD demonstrated a systematic way to facilitate learning across the district with the sharing of best practices.
This “infrastructure first approach” served us well when the pandemic struck in 2020. In a relatively short time, we were able to securely provide access to integrated curriculum remotely to all our students via Chromebooks. Later when the students returned to in-person learning, we seamlessly integrated their laptops to facilitate a 1:1 learning environment which was a first for CNUSD. Each student regardless of their circumstance can access academic and district operations content without impediment. In our small way, the IT Division works to eliminate barriers to student outcomes. Focusing on improving infrastructure, allowed us to go 1:1 with stability and reliability.
Your IT Department has collaborated closely with your district’s curriculum department on some specific initiatives aimed at improving access and equity. Can you describe those efforts?
I have been fortunate to work side by side with the Assistant Superintendent of Education Services for the last 8 years and we have collaborated on many projects that support student achievement and wellness. And two areas come to mind when I think of our work together.
One, the Information Technology and Innovation & Educational Technology (Innovate Ed) Team within the Education Services Division meets regularly to align our efforts in supporting educators, students, and parents on educational technology platforms. The Innovate Ed team comprises Teachers on Special Assignments and District Educational Services personnel.
Second, as a district we realized the need for ease of access for our administrators and teaching staff to state and internal data for meaningful impact to student achievement. Over the last 10 years, we have collaboratively worked with the Research, Evaluation & School Improvement (RESI) team in Education Services to streamline data quality and integration. Consequently, our educators, school leaders can engage in the work of improving instruction while accessing or analyzing data through data dashboards. RESI has focused on data-informed discussions and data literacy with administrators and teachers as an essential component of continuous improvement.
How did those efforts directly impact students?
Once reliable foundational infrastructure is in place, it is imperative to have a centrally secure location for all users to access content with as few barriers as possible. myCNUSD became the central portal for the organization with integrated Single-Sign-On (SSO), meaning a single password securely gets a user access to all internal content. For example, a single enterprise instance of Discovery Education licensing would be installed at the district servers or in the cloud and teachers and students can access this content using a single password. Moreover, this access is available both on campus and remotely at home to support 24/7 learning. Ease of access to resources for teachers translates to the likelihood of regular use in the classroom. Likewise, the I.T Team benefits from the ease of service delivery, and scaling of innovative practices. As a district, such a platform has allowed us to personalize learning and offer diverse pathways. This infrastructure helps us support our current Career Technology Education pathways such as Agriscience, Architectural Design, Engineering Technology, Biotechnology, Hospitality, Gaming, Software Development, Cybersecurity, Manufacturing, Automotive and Aviation.
As an organization, we cultivate a culture of continuous improvement and information as a key component. In other words, there are a myriad of daily organizational activities so how we can capture meaningful information from these activities and convert it into meaningful data points is critical for continuous improvement.
Thus, the I.T team collaborated with Educational Services to embark on data-informed initiatives that target specific outcomes in student achievement and operational efficiencies. We commenced the journey by constituting a diverse talent of database analysts, program analysts and programmers.
Building upon our improved infrastructure, we developed processes and platforms that streamline secure access to data, information, and reporting. One major foundational piece was the development of our internal Data Warehouse. Using real time reports from the Data Warehouse, school administrators and front office staff can keep impeccable data for accurate reporting and monitoring.
With time, these secure platforms and easy access to data have proven to be game changing, as district wide staff have timely access to the information needed to make critical decisions at their sites and ensure all students are on track to be successful in their academic goals and social emotional needs. More specifically, school leaders have a transparent way to monitor shifts in the classroom and allocate the limited resources accordingly for maximum impact on student achievement.
An example of our effort at continuous improvement can be seen in our work to improve visibility of students:
The state of California finds it important for students to graduate with the knowledge and skills to attend college. Therefore, the big question is what it means to be college ready. To be eligible to enter a four-year public college (either the California State University or University of California systems), students must meet a series of course requirements called A through G. Sometimes parents do not know their students may not be on track to qualify for public college if they have not met the A-G requirements. Given the complexities of the A-G requirements, Educational Services was looking for a solution that would fully automate the A-G calculation process that provides insights via reports and dashboards to monitor student progress. In response, our I.T. team developed a custom A-G Framework. The framework consists of custom data structures, processes to calculate A-G for all high school students, and reports to identify students at risk of meeting requirements and dashboards to visualize this data.
With access to an “A-G Student Report” dashboard, students can now get a complete picture to track A-G completions/requirements for UC and/or CSU admissions. Students can see their overall status and their status within each A-G bucket, thereby empowering the student in participating in their education process. This single page dashboard quickly gives principals, academic counselors, students, and parents the necessary information to track A-G progress. Consequently, recent results show that CNUSD recorded improvements in A-G completion rates that are well above the average county rates.
In addition to running the “A-G Student Report” for their caseload, counselors (and other school site staff) can run custom reports that identify students in need of support. The ability for counselors to run reports that identify students not on track is critical in appropriately scheduling classes. Counselors can determine the bucket of students who are not on track to meet requirements and determine the best path for students to meet A-G requirements. This is an illustration of the work of access and equity.
Our counselors have stated that this framework is a huge time saver for them and has directly impacted students and parents by simplifying the A-G requirements into an easy to read, single page dashboard!
Seamless data Integration between multiple sources across the organization is one of our top priorities. In todays interconnected world, integration also accelerates digital transformation to empower organizations with the necessary tools for learning and operation.
With data integration platforms, comes the modern approach for real-time and analytics-ready services. For example, we believe this is a tangible way to support our busy academic counselors and ensure every student is seen and heard. Likewise, our busy parents juggling work and parenting activities can easily access student related information in user friendly ways.
What lessons would you want other districts to know about your efforts?
- Craft a clear vision for Informational Technology Services and ensure the associated practices are aligned with the desired district goals. Establish a coherent system of service delivery rooted in custom service and project management principles.
- Work closely with the organization leadership to enlist their support at all times.
- Develop a dynamic team that can probe and ask the tough questions to deliver on the district goals. It is okay to make mistakes. Cultivate a culture of excellence and continue to invest in the team so they can in turn support the educators, students, and parents.
- Invest in sustainable infrastructure that scales over time. Reliability is essential for learning to occur in the classrooms every day! And establish realistic and commensurate budgets.
- Develop a communication plan – continuous communication with all stakeholders will help manage the expectations.
Ben, I know that you’re committed to equity and access in your personal life. Can you tell readers about your non-profit work?
We all want to be seen, be heard and have a sense of belonging to reach our full potential. My dad was born in the small village of Yimbo which is in the western region of Kenya by Lake Victoria. Whenever I visited Yimbo, I noticed young people and adults struggling and lacking hope. Extreme poverty stands in their way of reaching their full potential.
Therefore, one way that my dad and a few of his relatives thought to provide an opportunity to escape this impediment, was by building a local primary school to provide access to education. Walking 15 miles each way to the nearest school disincentivized families from sending their kids to school. If more local kids could get educated, the better their chances of breaking generational poverty thus impacting their community in profound and important ways.
In the early 1980s, two classrooms were constructed to form what is a K-8 school of over 400 students today. My dad later became involved in many other philanthropic efforts to support the village. However, he passed away in 1992 before realizing many of dreams for this small village. My brother Charles and I then founded Friends of Yimbo (FOY), a California based Not-For-Profit in 2007 in his honor to continue his work.
Friends of Yimbo partners with the Village of Yimbo in the areas of clean water, education, micro-enterprise opportunities and community health with an emphasis on Sustainability. We work to empower the village to grow these initiatives beyond our time together. Much like I approach my I.T. work, Charles and I assembled a board of directors for the non-profit that thoughtfully crafted a vision that is aligned with the desires of the village. We work closely with the village leadership to better understand their needs then together develop an ecosystem of capacity building.
We are surrounded by educators starting with my wife Alysia and Charles’s wife Kelley. Naturally this has given us access to a network of educators who have helped support the local school with classroom resources, teacher training and instructional coaching. We introduced technology to the school in 2016 where teachers received laptops and we installed a projector and desktop PCs in the shared space in the library. Those desktops were fully installed with MS Office productivity software and custom cataloged teacher resources which the teachers access daily. Individual teachers rotate their students through this shared learning space as they show instructional videos and use the document camera to project hard copy content. This document camera was a life saver for a rural school that had only ten required textbooks per classroom with ever-growing class rosters. The public school relies on limited funding to purchase textbooks, and neither can families afford these required textbooks.
To jumpstart the digital learning in 2016, we leveraged free content online that was copied onto portable external hard drives and USB drives which contained cataloged multimedia resources. These resources were presented in the form of an interactive PowerPoint slide decks, word document and PDFs that allowed teachers to explore various subjects, which in turn introduced this remote village to a world which they had yet to experience or knew existed.
However, transformation to digital learning without the foundational infrastructure is difficult to achieve. This school still lacks access to reliable internet access and ample cabling. Most of the learning content is online based so infrastructure and software provisioning still pose an inequitable access barrier to learning.
As we know, for sustainability, a successful school needs a supportive community around it. Consequently, we ensured the families have clean water by providing water tanks per household accompanied by community medical camps every two years. However, to directly tackle poverty, household incomes must be addressed as well. To that end, FOY developed a micro-enterprise focus for volunteering groups. Year round, a locally certified community organizer provides basic small business and organizational training as needed for small groups. For context, back in 2014 we started with a single group of 30 members and in 2022 it has been expanded to six groups of 186 members participating in chicken rearing, table-banking, used wares sales, food stands etc. FOY provides a 50% sponsorship to any group that successfully completes the start-up training, and the participants raise the other 50% matching funds. This is the work of equity and access. With this success, the micro-enterprise participants currently offer up to four scholarships to Muguna Primary School students who move onto secondary schools. When people are seen and heard, they rise to the occasion to impact their communities in sustainable ways.
All this work could not be possible if it were not for many generous and supportive friends Charles, and I have met along this journey. Every year, we take a group of volunteer travelers to join us on a visit to Yimbo to work alongside the local people and experience life in a remote Kenyan village. Please visit our website at www.friendsofyimbo.org and consider joining our work.
The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.